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Did I find what I was looking for in Chidambaram?

Don’t ask me why. But sometime last month, I began to get an urge to visit a Nataraj temple.

I get these sudden urges from time to time and while I tried, at first, to figure out what had set them off, I gave up when I could find no rational explanation.

 

Now, I just go.

 

   There are Shiva temples all over India though Hinduism often depicts Shivji with just a Shivling, rather than his full form. But a Nataraj temple is not that common. Of all of Shivji’s many forms, this is among the hardest to find; at least in North India.

 

   After much searching (I used the internet, not a pandit) I found a Nataraj temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. (It is a small town that is not named after the former Finance Minister.) It would take five to six hours to drive there from Chennai, I read.

 

   In a sense, this was just as well because I had work in Chennai anyway. So I timed my visit around a weekend. The idea was that I would work on Friday and Monday and use the weekend to visit the temple.

 

   My favourite hotel in Chennai is one of the oldest. I first went to Fisherman’s Cove as a schoolboy in 1975 and fell in love with it at first sight. In an era when there were few five star hotels (Madras had just one), the Cove stood out, not just because it is simply and tastefully designed but because its cottages were next to the beach. You ate breakfast staring at the waves and then you walked for two or three minutes and you were in the water.

 

   I became a regular visitor to Fisherman’s Cove in the 1980s and the Taj management was horrified when I told them that I thought it was their best resort. Far better than Goa, I said. “You and JRD Tata!” Ajit Kerkar who then ran the Taj, told me. “I can’t understand how you people prefer Fishcove to Aguada!”

 

   Kerkar is a Goan who more or less invented Goa as a tourist destination so I could understand his motives. But, as I told him, I was happier being on JRD’s side than his.

 

   I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been to Fishcove over the last 30 years (I even shot an episode of Custom Made there) and over the decades, some things have changed. The hotel is no longer far away from the city. Chennai has grown so quickly that the Cove is now almost a city hotel. Staying at the Cove when you have work in Chennai is more convenient than say, staying at the Four Seasons when you need to meet people in South Mumbai.

 

   Fortunately, the beach cottages have remained the same. Fish cove was built before the laws changed and you can’t build anything that near the sea now.

 

   Despite my love for the hotel I hadn’t been back to the Cove for nearly a decade and frankly I had been rather annoyed by the Taj’s decision to downgrade it to a Vivanta and treat it as a business hotel. Thank God Puneet Chhatwal, who now runs the Taj, has thrown out the Vivanta branding and is giving the hotel the importance, attention and love that it needs.

 

   Fish Cove fitted in neatly with my plans because while it is an hour from the airport that means it is also an hour nearer to Pondicherry, which was part of my grand plan.

 

   As I couldn’t face the thought of a five to six hour car journey, I had decided to break the trip up. I would fly to Chennai, drive to Fish Cove, spend the first night there and then drive to Pondicherry. The next day I would go to the temple and drive back to Pondicherry for the night. The following morning I would leave for Fish Cove and finish my work in Chennai.

 

   I realised that Mahabalipuram was on the road to Pondicherry. So naturally, I stopped over and went to see the Shore temple there. At one stage, there were five to six temples at Mahabalipuram but all but this one now are under the sea. . It is an archaeological monument rather a working temple but I found it fascinating because it reminded me of how much of a centre of global trade South India was in the Seventh Century when the temple was built.

 

   There are representations of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma as well as dozens of stone Nandi Bulls but what is striking is how global the style is. The pillars are inspired by Rome (a trading partner) and some statues (a large lion for instance) have distinct Chinese influences.

 

"There is a belief among many of the worshippers that there has been temple on this spot since the second century BC, which is difficult to substantiate."

   Each time I go to South India I am reminded of how skewed our sense of history is. Our textbooks suggest that all foreign contacts with India came overland through the North (the route the Mughals would later take) until Vasco de Gama and the other Europeans sailed to India in the late medieval period. In fact, ancient India had a bustling global network of sea routes. Its sailors went to the West and as far East as China. And the Arabs did not all come overland. The trading links between South India and the Arab world predate even the birth of Islam.

 

   From Mahabalipuram, I drove to Pondicherry (about two hours) my first visit to this former French colony that is so hyped by travel writers. I have to say I found it underwhelming. Admittedly I did not go to Auroville (no interest, frankly) but I found that whatever it was that had once made Pondicherry so special had either disappeared or was disappearing.

 

   The French quarter is lovely and charming (and because this is South India, clean). But it is also very small. People told me to take a bike and cycle around. But frankly you can walk from end to end without breaking a sweat. The buildings are quaint and interesting but there is a certain sameness to them all.

 

   I stayed at the Dupleix, a charming hotel that must once have been a French building of some kind. It had a lovely restaurant with good food (Vineet Bhatia tweeted to me to try the dosa Suzette but it was off the menu, alas) and enthusiastic if slightly inexperienced staff.

 

   Everyone had told me that the food in Pondicherry was excellent (“synthesis of French and Indian” etc., etc.) but perhaps I wasn’t there long enough to try the really innovative places. What I did eat was the standard mid-market tourist food that restaurants all over Asia make for visiting Europeans. At the much-recommended La Villa Hotel’s restaurant, for instance, the simplest French dishes (Gigot d'agneau for instance) were so poorly cooked that I wondered if perhaps the chef was off and the dishwasher had stepped in to do the cooking. The South Indian food everywhere was fine but that is not what you go to Pondicherry for.

 

   We left for Chidambaram early in the morning and when I got there I was surprised to find that it wasn’t just a single temple. Rather it was a huge complex with four different entrances, each marked by a large temple-like structure. The temple is still privately run by a groups of families who have looked after it for generations. They don’t charge for entry and there is no pressure to donate money at any stage. There were a few befuddled foreign tourists with guides but the vast majority of the visitors were solid, middle class South Indians. Some of them were there to witness weddings. I counted, during my time there, at least a dozen young couples who had come to get married.

 

   I won’t give you a guided tour of the temple but you may already know that it is one of the most sacred temples in the Shaivite tradition. It was built in the sixth and seventh centuries but kept being added to over the centuries. There is a belief among many of the worshippers that there has been temple on this spot since the second century BC, which is difficult to substantiate.

 

   The highlight of any visit is the aarti and the abhishek in the sanctum sanctorum. The 10 am abhishek is particularly special because the final phase involves washing a red lingam with a perfectly carved Nataraj engraved on it. It is hard to not gasp when, right at the end, the priest shines a light behind the ruby red lingam and reveals the Nataraj figure.

 

   There is also a Nataraj idol which is exquisite and (at least for me) exudes a powerful energy of its own.

 

   After our darshan, we sat in a corner of the main temple and ate the food cooked by the temple’s cooks. All of it was simple (no garlic, no onions) and rice was the star of the show: tamarind rice, curd-rice, sweet rice along with temple vadai made from urad dal and a delicious baingan sabzi.

 

   It was the best meal I had eaten in weeks. I was told that this was food cooked to ancient recipes. I am no stranger to temple food. There is a scene in the Udupi episode of A Matter of Taste where I am made to eat and eat and eat sitting on the floor of the temple. But there was nothing heavy or overpowering about the food in Chidambaram.

 

   Later that afternoon when I was back in Pondicherry, I decided not to stay on. Instead I drove back to Chennai and Fisherman’s Cove.

 

   I don’t know what it was. But something about the whole experience had made me feel that I wanted to be back to nature, to the sand and the sea and the cool cool wind that rushed through Fish Cove.

 

   So, had I found what I was looking for in Chidambaram? Why had I felt such a strong urge to go to a Nataraj temple even though that particular style of Shiva-worship had never before interested me?

 

   Who knows? Perhaps, God does. But I am still not sure.

 

   All I know is that I am glad I went.

 

 

Posted On: 28 Nov 2018 10:48 AM
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